I had never, until now, played an Assassin’s Creed game. I was vaguely aware of the franchise involving jumping off tall buildings, hoovering up collectibles from all over expansive worlds and a much-maligned modern-day sci-fi meta-plot getting in the way of historical shenanigans.
I was never all that interested, but Ubisoft decided to give the 4th game in the series — frequently hailed even by cynical outlets as “the good one” — away for free, and my curiosity got the better of me. What could possibly go wrong?
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
Collectibles, that’s what could go wrong. I’ve got dangerously compulsive tendencies, and as soon as I saw the suite of counters that accompanies every region it was already too late. The list of things to collect is hilariously large, offering so much distraction that I don’t think I’ve even got into the meat of the main plot yet, despite having hoovered up hundreds of things across vast tracts of the West Indies.
The profusion of collectibles interests me because it is surprisingly varied. Treasure chests are just lying around the place, but give you money to spend on actual gameplay. Sea shanties drift across city rooftops, needing to be chased down with maximum parkour skills. Mayan stelae require you to do a little puzzle…
That’s not even all of them; for a game ostensibly about assassinating bad people, most of your time is spent cruising around the landscape collecting things. (Well, yes, all of these things are “optional”, but progression along the main quest at least requires you to gather money if not all the other things.)
The thing that gets me about the collectibles is that you don’t really need to explore to find them. As soon as you get close to one, a convenient icon appears on the minimap, and if you climb some special towers and pose dramatically on the edge they’ll reveal all the icons in the region permanently. Isn’t sweet loot supposed to be a reward for exploring the world?
On the other hand, the lush jungle environment is itself a puzzle in Black Flag. It’s one thing to know that there is an Animus Fragment up that tree, but it’s often quite another to get there. Protagonist Edward Kenway is a nimble man, vaulting up cracked walls and even getting past overhangs that would signal a blocked path in other games. Although the control scheme is mostly “hold forward to do something awesome”, you still have to point him in the right direction: if the collectible is up one tree, you’ll need to jump from that tree onto this rock and you can climb up from the ground there…
It’s not strenuous, and sometimes it does leave me wishing there were perhaps fewer collectibles that required a little more effort to obtain. On the other hand, sometimes your brain needs a rest and I have already been suckered in by the appeal of sauntering around sun-soaked beaches and bounding up palm trees. It’s an attractive world, lush and vibrant, with animals in the trees and fish in the sea — sometimes, that’s all you need.
After all, it is an open world game and that means that above and beyond everything else, you’ll spend the bulk of your game time moving around. If the simple act of moving around isn’t fun of itself, then you’ll freeze yourself out of the game long before getting to “the meat” of the story and the action. And I suppose, yes, okay, I will concede in this case that the auto-parkour is more than a little bit fun.
So maybe I’ve always been thinking about collectibles in the wrong way, from the perspective of a decadent materialist obsessed with reward — when in reality, the objects being collected are not important at all; it’s the act of collection that’s the key.
The open world structure does come with quite a bit more baggage than collectibles, though; there is also a huge spread of more involved side activities, many of which appear on the same area completion tally. Some of these are straightforward, like rescuing some pirate pals from guards, while others like assassination contracts require a bit of finesse (at least, if you want the 500 reale stealth bonus).
The good side of these is that although accepting one generally just puts a marker on your map, there is no particular obligation to go and do it right now. If you want to stop off on the way and loot some chests, pick up some Animus Fragments, maybe clear out a smugglers’ cove — sure, go for it. Even having a main story quest active doesn’t lock you out of much of the background fluff.
Although, it was a bit amusing when I did the main quest that finally said “we’ll pay you for taking on these assassination contracts, just go to the pigeon coops”. Like, dude, I’ve already done 20-odd. Where did you think your money was going?
The one other thing that puts me off is ultimately my own fault. Assassin’s Creed IV is, funnily enough, the fourth entry in the series and boy, it does not hang about. Not having played any of the precending entries, the deluge of dialogue about Templars and Precursors went completely over my head — though I do thoroughly respect the confidence of that delivery, the game embracing its pseudo-scientific mythos and bonkers alternate-history conspiracy rather than pretending it’s grim and gritty and there’s no fun here no sirree.
The curious thing is that your protagonist Edward Kenway enters this would afresh, just like a new player such as myself does. This would usually be the perfect opportunity to refresh the memories of returning players and fill in the gaps for new ones without being too patronising, as the character himself has no understanding of what’s going on. However, Edward enters this would through bluffing, and therefore has to pretend like he already knows what’s going on.
Although the main plot starts to ramp up more of the context after a bit, the amount of open-world meandering one is encouraged to do means these plot points are relatively few and far between. Seems like an opportunity to get you embedded faster was a little bit sqaundered.
Ah, but I’m still playing it, still denuding the seas of sharks and hoovering up swag and murdering my way through the Spanish and British navies. It’s a monstrous time-sink and I feel like it would have been better with a smaller but more focused and involved geography, but I’ve said that about every open-world game post-Morrowind so clearly I’m the odd one out here. Even so, it’s a relatively engaging time-sink and I’m quite likely to continue grinding my way around the world, finding all the little bitties in case there’s some nugget of bonus narrative to unlock at the end of it all.
It’s never going to be a favourite and I’ll likely never touch it again once done, but it is much more interesting than I expected — and who knows, maybe one day soon I’ll be adding collectibles to my game?